Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Hybrid, schmybrid – get on yer bike!

July 31, 2009

BICYCLES/JAPAN

Can things get any worse for the car industry?

Just when you thought hybrid cars were all the rage in Japan, they’re being shoved aside for the environmental cachet by an even greener alternative: electric bicycles.

Motor-assisted “hybrid” bicycles are gaining traction thanks to a greying population and a growing interest in being green and healthy.

Last week, I got to test out one of these products at an event sponsored by Yamaha Motor. With a battery-powered electric motor to propel you, cycling up a hill while carrying two toddlers (or two 10-kg tanks of water, in my case) is a cinch. When the motor kicks in, it feels like someone is giving you a push from behind; and it never feels dangerous because the motor adjusts to the force and speed of your own pedalling.

Unlike the popular motorised bicycles sold in China, Japanese ones require no licence because the motor is made to switch off once the bicycle reaches the 24 km/hour legal limit for assisted riding.

“Once you’ve ridden one of our motor-assisted bicycles, you’ll never go back!” a Yamaha spokeswoman beamed, saying she’s been hooked to hers since her first ride. Yamaha Motor, based in the sleepy town of Iwata, near Mt Fuji,  is trying to encourage its employees to ditch their cars when commuting. “On a motor-assisted bicycle, a 20-km commute is a walk in the park,” another Yamaha official told me.

GERMANY-ENVIRONMENT/CYCLINGSanyo Electric, which also makes electric bicycles and supplies the lithium-ion batteries to Yamaha, is even looking to attract hard-core bikers: Its newest model is the world’s first motor-assisted bicycle with a carbon composite frame that’ll set you back $6,600.

Yamaha says it’s eyeing the European market for expansion, too. It’s no wonder: a colleague in Berlin, Erik Kirschbaum, writes today that the number of bicycle commuters in the German capital has doubled in the last 10 years and is expected to double again in the next decade. Not a good omen for that car-industry mecca, either.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Toru Hanai; REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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